The other day I was walking around A.C. Moore with my friend Aline. She was shopping for teacher supplies and I was telling her all about the latest idea for a story that had popped into my head. It’s a story that I won’t have time to write for years at least, but there it was in my head anyhow.
As I narrated the plot as far as it had come to me she paused and laughed and said, “It must be really interesting inside your head.”
“You have no idea,” I replied. “But hey, I never get bored.”
It’s true. I always have one story, or more likely half a dozen, zipping around my mind at any given time. At times various friends like Aline have marveled at how all of those stories appear and how I’m able to nurture them into being. I mean, I’m a writer, it comes naturally to me. But not everyone is like that (thank God!).
So it got me thinking….
True, my brain just works in stories. But I also have a whole bag of tricks when it comes to formulating and sustaining a novel as I write it. These aren’t writing techniques, storyboards, character diagrams, or anything technical at all. My writing tools are much more emotional. You could even call them sensual. I know there are other writers out there who employ similar goofy methods to stay engaged with the story, but just in case, I think I’ll share some of them with you.
By the way, I employ these techniques as a reader too. So if you happen to be reading this and you’re not a writer, do not despair! You might find this interesting too. This is what the nutty people who write the books you read do.
So let’s start with creating sensual characters.
My writer-hero, J.K. Rowling, was once asked how she felt about the casting of the Harry Potter movies, if she now sees Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, and Emma Watson in her mind’s eye when she writes. Her answer was an emphatic no. She has her image of what each of her characters look like and it’s nothing like any of the actors who were cast for the films. With one notable exception. The casting of Evanna Lynch as Luna Lovegood was to perfect, in Rowling’s estimation, that she now sees the actress in her mind as the character.
I have a background in theater, so when I create characters I instantly cast real people in the roles. Nine times out of ten I cast famous actors, but sometimes I cast people I know. The series I’m currently working on – Historical Romance set in Montana in 1895 – actually has three characters who are based off of people I have known in real life. One is a friend from childhood, one a good friend from high school, and the third is a man I used to work with (and had a bit of a crush on).
But usually it’s famous people. Like this guy, for instance. Yeah, you might recognize him as Ben Linus from Lost. Believe it or not, he’s the hero in my current work in progress. Yes, I have strange taste in men. So what made me decide to cast someone who was creepy and manipulative in Lost as a charming businessman with a tragic past running a general store in a tiny Montana town? It’s the look in Michael Emerson’s eyes when he plays characters who have so much to hide. Fits perfectly.
The key to casting characters is to love people. I think it might also be the vain attempt to try to understand them too. I’m a sucker for a talented actor, no matter what he looks like. The same goes for casting heroines. Yeah, sure, this is Amy Adams. We all know that. But when I saw this particular picture I was so taken by the fresh, somewhat naïve optimism it suggested to me that I cast her as the heroine, Ruby, in the novel I was working on in January. Has Amy Adams ever played any role close to the character of Ruby? Nope. But having her inhabit the character in my mind as I wrote the first draft helped me to visualize what she was doing and why.
How about this guy. Chances are you have no idea who this is. To me this picture represents the absolute essence of my character Jack from The Loyal Heart and The Faithful Heart. I printed out this picture and pasted it directly above my computer when I was writing The Faithful Heart. In my mind’s eye every move Jack made, every word he spoke, had this image attached to it.
Interestingly enough, when I showed this picture to one of my friends who read the books she was surprised. That wasn’t at all how she had pictured Jack. Does that matter? No, not at all. In fact, I think it’s better that the reader conjure up their own idea of what the characters in the books they’re reading look like. And I have to admit that nine out of ten romance novels I read have a hero that ends up looking like Richard Armitage in my mind’s eye.
So why bother casting your characters at all?
Because whether you know it or not, writing is a sensual game. You get the best results when all of your senses are engaged. I feel like I’m able to describe actions and expressions and even motivations so much better when I have something physical and visual to pin them to. In the past when I’ve created characters without knowing what they look like they’ve always turned out two-dimensional and lacking.
I should also add that in reality I have a very small pool of actors who light my fire who I use over and over again (no pun intended). At last count I think I have cast Richard Armitage as the hero in about 8 different novels. There’s no harm in that. If I work my stories right you’d never know.
So how about you? Is it just me who does this or are there other writers out there who cast their characters?
If you’re a writer and you don’t work this way, by the way, I highly recommend giving it a try.